Story Starters and Where to Get Them

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Note
* Writing the Character-Driven Story: Chapter 3, Part 1
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Quotes of the Day

“Even when an outline was a homework assignment, I’d write the story, then do the outline to turn in.” KC Riggs

“If you ground the reader as you run through the story with the characters, write the truth of what happens and write the truth of how the characters react and what happens as a result of that reaction, you cannot write a bad story.” from Chapter 6 of the forthcoming second edition of


Yesterday I finished the book. It is revised and expanded, with two new chapters. Today, I’m going back to writing fiction.

Story Starters and Where to Get Them

All story ideas are also story starters, of course, but not all story starters are story ideas.

In much of this chapter I will talk about where to get story ideas, but I thought this was the most appropriate place to talk about story starters too.

First, the differences.

The story starter is any physical, emotional or mental stimulus that evokes a memory of something that happened or provides a catalyst to something that could happen. It is only a trigger, nothing more.

The story idea is a character with a problem in a setting. It is only a trigger, nothing more.

Both are only triggers, nothing more. The sole purpose of both is to get you to the keyboard.

The Story Starter

A story starter can be literally anything.

  • It can be the scent of freshly baked bread or of ozone in the air or any other scent.
  • It can be the sound of a car door closing or a peal of thunder or any other sound.
  • It can be the rough texture of a wood rasp in your hand or the pin prick of the needle as the nurse draws blood or the cool sheet and pillow in your bed when you first lie down or any other physical feeling.
  • It can be the taste of hard candy on your tongue or the flavor of real or faux bacon as you chew it or a slice of lemon or orange or any other flavor in your mouth.
  • It can be the sudden flash of lightning against a dark sky or the way the books are lined up on shelves in a library or the dust motes floating in the beam of sunlight coming through the window or a powerful horse galloping across a pasture or any other sight.

Any physical sensory input might remind you of something that happened in your past and evoke a story. That’s memoir.

Note that since it comes from your memory of the event, to most everyone else who also witnessed or participated in the event, memoir is much more closely related to fiction than to non-fiction.

And any physical sensory input that reminds you of something that hasn’t happened yet but should can evoke a story. When you are reminded by anything about something that hasn’t happened yet and you begin to write it, that’s fiction.

Physical or emotional sensory input usually overlap and combine to provide a story starter. For example,

  • the aroma of a rosewood-scented candle might evoke a memory or a story.
  • The same aroma in a dimly lighted room or otherwise darkened room might evoke a completely different story.
  • The same aroma wafting past on a beach will almost certainly evoke another completely different story.

The same goes for things seen or heard or smelled or tasted or felt, physically or emotionally, in various lighting situations and with various background noises and combinations or various olfactory sensations and so on.

In other words, that same aroma of a rosewood-scented candle mixed with the predominant aroma of freshly baked bread with the sound of cars passing in the background would start another completely different story.

And the same stimuli in a dimly lighted room (yes, without the passing cars) might evoke a completely different story. And if a car DOES suddenly come into that same room, well, there’s a whole other story.

A story starter can be the single chirp of a bird. It can be a rock in a particular shape that you see as you’re walking down the road. It can be what she said the last time you saw her, or part of what she said. Or it can be the way she said it. Or both.

It can be a lyric or a line of dialogue or narrative. It can be a character name or a character type. It can be a flash from a scene, like a bull twisting and rising into the air as the chute gate is jerked open at a rodeo.

Any of those and anything else can be a story starter.

What matters is what you do with it.

I should add here that some writers can turn a quick story starter straight into a story. And it happens so quickly that they practically skip over the “character with a problem in a setting” story-idea stage.

Prolific fiction writer Dean Wesley Smith collects pulp magazines. He keeps a list of titles from the stories in those magazines.

Then sometimes when he wants to write a story, he selects one-half of one story title and crashes it into one-half of another story title. The resulting title serves as his story starter.

So perhaps he sees a story titled “The Breath Formed” and another one titled “Mouth Watering.” He might crash those titles together to get “The Mouth Formed.” (Horror, anyone?)

He sits down, puts his fingers on the keyboard, and types in The Mouth Formed. Then he hits the Enter key a couple of times and writes whatever comes to him.

I do the same thing, although I seldom start with the title.

I collect professional grade photos to use as the basis for book covers. Occasionally I’ll glance through them.

As I’m looking at a photo, if a title or a character uttering a line of dialogue or chuckling or giggling or laughing maniacally might come to me. If it does, bam, I’m off and typing.

More often, a character will pop into my head while I’m driving or chatting with someone or doing whatever else. And again, as soon as I can get to the keyboard, I’m off an typing, conveying whatever story unfolds.

It really is that easy.

The hard part is sitting down and putting your fingers on the keyboard. Once you get over that horribly traumatic notion, the rest of it really is a snap.

Next up, Chapter 3, Part 2.

I’ll talk with you again then.

Of Interest

Editing and Reading Observations… Part 10

The Numbers

The Journal……………………………… 1120

Writing of Blackwell Ops 20: Soleada Garcia: Into the Future (tentative title)

Day 1…… 3681 words. To date…… 3681
Day 2…… 3044 words. To date…… 6725

Fiction for February……………………. 10411
Fiction for 2024…………………………. 128015
Fiction since October 1……………… 431072
Nonfiction for February……………… 9230
Nonfiction for 2024…………………… 41190
2024 consumable words…………… 169205

2024 Novels to Date……………………… 3
2024 Novellas to Date…………………… 0
2024 Short Stories to Date……………… 1
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………… 85
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)…………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)…… 239
Short story collections…………………… 31

Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark and adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. Unreasoning fear and the myths of writing will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.

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